FORT WORTH, Texas – Late in the second half of the UNC men’s basketball's team Round of 64 game, the intensity between the team and its foe reached heights like no other match this season.
Against the opposing Marquette Golden Eagles, emotions rose and tempers flared, all of which eventually led to a scuffle between sophomore guard Caleb Love and Marquette’s Darryl Morsell.
The two went after a loose ball, and while the players were on the ground, Morsell wrapped his right arm around Love’s head. He didn't take the move kindly.
The two got up and began jawing at each other before the rest of the players on the court could step in. After the back-and-forth, UNC head coach Hubert Davis yelled out to Love, took off his glasses and talked to his player to keep him composed.
While Love needed to stay focused on the game, the fiery attitude he displayed was exactly what Davis wanted.
"If someone's trying to push us around, we're going to push back," Davis said. "If they're going to elbow, we'll elbow them back. If they want to kick us, we're going to kick them back."
North Carolina routed the Golden Eagles, 95-63, for its first NCAA Tournament win since 2019. But the final score did not fully reflect the competition of the first half.
Dickies Arena holds roughly two-thirds of the audience that the Dean E. Smith Center does, meaning fan support for the Tar Heels was minimized. But that didn’t stop those in the crowd from engaging with the scrappiness they were witnessing.
For North Carolina, though, the best way to respond was with sound basketball.
"We don't back down from anything," Love said. "We came out with the win. That's all I cared about."
For the rest of the game, the Tar Heels displayed strong cohesion and chemistry.
Of the 34 made shots by the Tar Heels, including 13 makes from downtown, 29 of them were assisted. The flow of the offense was largely pioneered by sophomore RJ Davis, who finished with a career-high 12 assists.
And even he had his moments with Morsell in the first half: the two engaged in competitive dialogue when the Golden Eagle picked up Davis at the top of the key. But he knew his end goal.
"It's all about keeping your head," RJ Davis said. "When things get a little out of hand, you just want to remain solid and remain together."
Love set the tone for North Carolina in the first half with six triples, tying a career-high. He entered a zone where nothing could deter him from shooting. On one of his misses, senior forward Leaky Black was there to clean it up and kick it back out to Love, who didn’t hesitate to raise up and knock down the shot.
Manek anchored the team in the second half — with 15 of his season-high 28 points coming in the period. As he had done in the closing stretch of the season, he mixed it up with 3-pointers and found his way inside for the occasional dunk.
Black's defense continued to boost UNC, as the team held Marquette’s leading scorer – Jordan Lewis – to six points on 2-15 shooting.
"Having a guy like Leaky is just amazing," junior forward Armando Bacot said. "Just knowing that every game he can go in there and shut down their best players."
UNC has operated like a well-oiled machine for the better part of the last month. Of course, the team fell to Virginia Tech in the ACC Tournament, but that has been its only loss since Feb. 16. The Tar Heels are certainly peaking, and not much has been able to stop them.
For the last eight games, UNC has come out on top seven times with an average victory margin of 14.1 points in those wins. The last three victories all had margins of 10 or more points.
UNC brought that momentum into Fort Worth on Thursday with its resounding 32-point win — the largest ever between an eight-seed and nine-seed in the history of the tournament.
Now, after the technical fouls, scuffles and trash-talk, North Carolina is in a position to carry its hot hand into its Round of 32 game against the reigning champions, the Baylor Bears, on Saturday.
"We decided as a team that we wanted to turn it around and make the rest of the season worthwhile," RJ Davis said. "And we're doing that so far."
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